By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — The Mississippi House on Thursday passed a bill originally designed to strengthen the Open Meetings laws, but the state Ethics Commission director said the bill has been watered down.
“If a board goes into an illegal secret meeting and does something sneaky, somebody needs to be able to undo that. That’s not possible under current law, and it’s not possible under the House version,” ethics director Tom Hood said Thursday.
House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said his committee made the bill stronger, not weaker.
“I believe in doing what’s reasonable and what’s right and in the public’s best interests. And I think that what we did was certainly that,” Blackmon said in a separate interview.
When the bill passed the Senate last month, it would’ve required elected officials to use their own money to pay fines for illegally closing meetings. Under current law, fines are paid by tax dollars — not by the individual violators.
The House committee voted early this week to increase the fines, but taxpayers would still pick up the tab. During debate by the full House on Thursday, members voted 65-54 for an amendment restoring provisions that require individual violators to pay the fines.
“Taxpayers should not have to pay for someone’s willful violation of the law,” said Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, who led the effort make individuals pay the fines.
When the bill cleared the Senate last month, it said any decision made in an illegally closed meeting could be nullified by a chancery judge or the Ethics Commission. The House Judiciary A Committee removed that provision, and the bill passed the House that way.
The bill passed 97-22 and was held for the possibility more House debate in the next few days. It would die if Blackmon chooses not to call it back up before a March 11 deadline.
Blackmon — whose law firm represents the city of Canton — said in many smaller cities and communities, elected officials are paid little, and they might not have easy access to legal advice. He said making those people pay a fine would be an unfair financial burden.
“We didn’t want to penalize those folk unduly,” Blackmon said. “We didn’t need to take a sledgehammer to this.”
Blackmon said he favors increasing the training that elected officials receive about reasons that meetings may legally be closed — for example, for discussions about personnel matters, pending litigation or the purchase of land.
The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and the Mississippi Press Association are among the groups lobbying for the changes that were in the original version of the bill.
Attorney Leonard Van Slyke of Jackson, who is on the MCFOI advisory committee, said a closed meeting by a majority of the state transportation commissioners last year points to the need for stronger deterrents to secrecy.
The Ethics Commission found that when two of the three transportation commissioners violated the Open Meetings law by having a private dinner meeting to discuss a potential project.
“What happened in the House committee is disrespectful to the citizens of Mississippi,” Van Slyke said Thursday. “We had a bipartisan bill that sailed through the Senate and addressed concerns that were raised by citizens, in particular the fact that public money was paying fines for wrongdoers in the public service.”
The bill is Senate Bill 2373.
Miss. House roll call on Open Meetings fines
The Associated Press
JACKSON — The Mississippi House, on a 65-54 vote, approved an amendment Thursday that would require individuals, rather than taxpayers, to pay fines for violating Open Meetings laws.
A yes vote was a vote for the proposal, while a no vote was a vote against it.
Voting yes were 23 Democrats and 42 Republicans. Voting no were 50 Democrats and 4 Republicans.
Democrats voting yes (23)
Bell, Fulton; Brown, Jackson; Dedeaux, Perkinston; Duvall, Mantachie; Eaton, Taylorsville; B. Evans, Monticello; Holland, Plantersville; B. Jones, Pascagoula; Lane, Waynesboro; Mayo, Clarksdale;
Moak, Bogue Chitto; Nicholson, Little Rock; Norquist, Cleveland; Nowell, Louisville; Parker, Lucedale; Patterson, Biloxi; Reynolds, Charleston; M. Rogers, New Albany; J. Smith, Columbus; Stevens, West;
Sullivan, Okolona; Walley, Leakesville; Ward, Ripley.
Republicans voting yes (42)
Akins, Oxford; L. Baker, Senatobia; Beckett, Bruce; Bennett, Long Beach; Bondurant, Grenada; Byrd, Petal; Campbell, Meridian; Carpenter, Burnsville; Chism, Columbus; Currie, Brookhaven;
DeLano, Biloxi; Denny, Jackson; Ellington, Raymond; Fillingane, Sumrall; Formby, Picayune; Frierson, Poplarville; Gipson, Braxton; Guice, Ocean Springs; Gunn, Clinton; E. Hamilton, Olive Branch;
F. Hamilton, Hurley; Horne, Meridian; Howell, Kilmichael; M. Huddleston, Pontotoc; Martinson, Madison; Mayhall, Southaven; Mims, McComb; Monsour, Vicksburg; Moore, Brandon; Morgan, Morgantown;
Palazzo, Biloxi; Pigott, Tylertown; Read, Gautier; Reed, Ackerman; R. Rogers, Pearl; Snowden, Meridian; Staples, Laurel; Turner, Baldwyn; Upshaw, Diamondhead; Weathersby, Florence;
Woods, Byhalia; Zuber, Ocean Springs.
Democrats voting no (50)
Arinder, Morton; Bailey, Greenville; Banks, Jackson; Blackmon, Canton; Bounds, Philadelphia; Broomfield, Moss Point; K. Buck, Holly Springs; K.C. Buck, Jackson; Burnett, Tunica; Calhoun, Jackson;
Clark, Pickens; Clarke, Jackson; Cockerham, Magnolia; L. Coleman, Mound Bayou; M. Coleman, Jackson; Compretta, Bay St. Louis; Dickson, Macon; Ellis, Starkville; Espy, Clarksdale; J. Evans, Jackson;
Flaggs, Vicksburg; Fredericks, Gulfport; Gadd, Hickory Flat; Gardner, Batesville; Gibbs, West Point; Harrison, Columbus; Hines, Greenville; Holloway, Hazlehurst; R. Huddleston, Sumner; Johnson, Natchez;
W. Jones, Meridian; Malone, Carthage; McBride, Courtland; McCoy, Rienzi; Middleton, Port Gibson; Moss, Corinth; Myers, McComb; Peranich, Pass Christian; Perkins, Greenwood; Puckett, Hatley;
Robinson, Bolton; Scott, Laurel; F. Smith, Carthage; Straughter, Belzoni; Stringer, Montrose; Thomas, Indianola; Warren, Mount Olive; Watson, Hattiesburg; Whittington, Schlater; Wooten, Jackson.
Republicans voting no (4)
M. Baker, Brandon; Barker, Hattiesburg; Jennings, Southaven; McGee, Brandon.
Republican not voting (1)
Democrat absent (1)
Republican absent (1)